By K. V. Kesavan
In Japan, the recently held governor’s election in the Niigata Prefecture attracted national attention for understandable reasons. Gubernatorial elections carry considerable significance in the country as they act as a barometer showing the pulse of the people across the country. While they do not exert any immediate impact on Tokyo, they do point to the political wind that blows across at a given time. Another important aspect of the prefectural governors’ elections is that major political parties are not always setting up their own party candidates. More often they endorse and support influential independent candidates.
In the Niigata Prefecture governor’s election, held on 16 October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was keen to have a cooperative governor with strong inclinations to restart the long languishing nuclear plants in the prefecture. After the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s energy goals have been hit seriously as the nuclear energy — a major source in the country’s energy calculus — has been almost stopped. At the time of the Fukushima crisis, Japan had about fifty nuclear reactors accounting for almost thirty percent of the total national energy output. But very soon after the tragedy, almost all of them tended to go idle and the popular sentiment against nuclear energy has almost made it impossible for the government to revive the operations of the reactors. Five years since the 2011 crisis, only one reactor has resumed its service and that too against intense popular resentment.
PM Abe is keen to implement his new energy policy with nuclear power as a key element. But for this, PM Abe would like to have friendly prefectural governors who would work in tandem with the central government in carrying out its policies and programmes. In this sense, Abe would have preferred a friendly governor. But the victory of Ryuichi Yoneyama as the governor of Niigata Prefecture came as a great disappointment for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party/Komeito coalition. Pitted against him was Tamio Mori, a more experienced politician who had served as mayor of Nagaoka in the same Niigata Prefecture. Mori was supported by both the LDP and Komeito. Abe and his party thought that if Mori won the election, it would be easier for them to place the idle reactors back on service.
A brief look at the background of the present election would be useful to understand why it has attracted so much national and even global attention. Niigata is one of the closest neighbours of Fukushima Prefecture, where the nuclear disaster took place in March 2011. Niigata is also home to one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants called Kashiwazeki-Kariwa station. The station owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) with seven reactors generating 8,120 MW has the capacity to provide power to sixteen million households.
To be sure, the Kashiwaseki-Kariwa (KK) nuclear station was not hit by the March 2011 tragedy which damaged the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But the KK plant had been earlier affected by the Niigata Chusetsu earthquake of 2007 which damaged the site, but did not damage the reactors themselves. Subsequently, steps were taken to strengthen the plant’s quake resistance, while the units were offline. Following the Fukushima Daiichi accident of March 2011, the KK plant has remained idle like most nuclear reactors in Japan.
In order to understand the local dynamics in Niigata, one has to look back a little and see what has transpired in the last decade or so. The outgoing governor, Hirohiko Izumida had held the post of governor for three terms since 2004 and despite various improvements to the KK reactors, he was very firm in adopting a cautious stand on the question of restarting them. His strong resistance to resumption of reactors rested on two grounds. One, he believed that the people of Niigata Prefecture have still not overcome their concerns regarding the safety of the KK plant caused by the Niigata Chuetsu earthquake of 2007. He was not satisfied with the central government’s plans for evacuating local residents in the event of another nuclear plant accident. Second, Izumida also wanted a thorough investigation into the Fukushima nuclear disaster itself. In fact, he amply demonstrated that a governor had the responsibility to play multiple roles without leaving the safety issue entirely to the central government.
Yoneyama, a doctor by profession and relatively new to politics, announced his candidature only just before the official campaigning started. He was supported by the opposition Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party. Sensing the intensity of the voters’ concern about the nuclear issue, he pledged that he would not discuss the resumption of the KK plant unless the reasons for the 2011 disaster, its impact and its challenges were fully investigated. After winning the election, he reiterated that he would stick to his election pledge.
The victory of Yoneyama is considered as a major obstacle to Prime Minister Abe’s hope for restarting reactors which have passed the screenings of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).He believes that the non-resumption of the KK plant would have a serious negative impact on so many other reactors that have passed the NRA’s screenings, but not started their operations. In addition, one should also recognise the present dire financial state of the TEPCO which is desperately looking for a turnaround. If the KK plant is restarted, the TEPCO could start making earnings to cover the costs of compensation payments for Fukushima nuclear crisis victims, decontamination process and decommissioning at the Fukushima plant. Expenditures on these projects would involve trillions of Yen. The Abe government is now keen to engage the new governor in a dialogue for finding an acceptable formula for easing the situation.
In this context, it is important to note how Junichiro Koizumi, former prime minister of Japan, has taken a strong anti-nuclear position to criticise Abe. Considering Abe’s nuclear policy unrealistic, he said that the LDP may lose the next lower house election if the main opposition parties cooperated to make the nuclear question the main electoral issue. This statement assumes considerable significance since many LDP leaders are now talking about the possibility of a snap election during early next year.